Editorial: When Did the Rules Change?

Dan Marmion


Several years ago, long before I ever thought about being a librarian, I was a graduate history student. History students have to read a lot of journal articles, and back in the day, online full text just wasn't an option. Fortunately, photocopying was an option, and it was a common experience to collect an armload of journals and a pocketful of nickels and tie up a photocopy machine for an hour or more. It was easy to spend five or ten dollars at a time when working on a major paper (and, of course, practically every graduate history class you took had a major paper assigned). The library didn't offer me free photocopying, nor did I expect it to. I was just glad I had access to the journals without having to go through interlibrary loan.

The library at the university I attended didn't have an integrated library system, or any kind of electronic index. My memory may be faulty here, but the first electronic index of any significance that I can remember available for a library to purchase was Infotrac on videodisc, the brainchild of the late Brett Butler, and it didn't come out until after I had become a librarian. We were an early adopter at the library where I had my first professional job as a reference librarian, and I knew it was going to change the world when I saw countless students come into the library far enough to see the sign saying Infotrac was out of order again (the early version did have lots of problems), curse, turn around, and walk out. They would rather come back to the library at another time than use the printed indexes. But I digress . . .

The point I'm making is that there were no computers in the library then, and my options were to use printed sources and take notes or pay for photocopies. Now fast forward to the twenty-first century . . .

At the library where I now work, we recently negotiated a new contract with a photocopy services vendor, and as a result we removed several public-use copy machines from the library. Why? Because over the past few years their use has dropped drastically. Why is that? Simply because we provide access to so much full text online. They don't have to follow the regimen I did those many years ago, so why should they? Instead of wandering around in the stacks to find a print journal and then taking it to a photocopier, we've given them the ability to stay in one place, locate what they want, and print it right there (save the time of the reader, right?)--for free, no less. Which brings me to what I really want to address.

Just like everybody else, we are looking for ways to save money in these troubled economic times. One of the options we've chosen is to cancel all print serial titles that we have full text access to electronically--not a popular move with some of the teaching faculty (although not all faculty, by a long shot). I was struck by one complaint from a faculty member in the sciences who said that this was a terrible move on our part because students needed not just the black and white text but also the full-color illustrations that accompany many articles. Canceling print was simply unacceptable, this faculty member said, unless the library provide free color printing for the students.

Well, my immediate, flippant reaction was to say, "Sure, we'll provide just as much free color printing as we do free color photocopying--gimme a break." Fortunately I didn't say it to the faculty member. But that's when I started wondering when the rules changed. Why does an intelligent member of the faculty think this is a reasonable expectation? I don't think Ranganathan said to save the money of the reader, did he?

Finally, however, I figured out when the rules changed, and who changed them. To quote Walt Kelly, "We have met the enemy, and he is us." We, the librarians, changed the rules, however unintentionally. We did it when libraries started supplying computers with printers and online capabilities for their users. We said we shouldn't charge for printing a call number or a citation, because somehow that seemed to violate what libraries are all about. So that got us into a mindset that led to us resisting charging for printing, even as we gave our users more and more stuff to print. They got used to it, of course, and now they think it's their due. We can't really blame them, now, can we? Actually, we should provide free photocopies and charge for printing. We would come out way ahead in the long run. Anybody want to buy some used photocopy machines?




   Dan Marmion ( dmarmion@nd.edu) is Associate Director for Information Systems and Digital Access at the University of Notre Dame Libraries, Notre Dame, Indiana.